April 21, 2024

More restraint was needed in reporting Savita’s death

Hi there,

One of the impressive things about the reaction of the police and the government in Boston after the terrible bomb blasts near the marathon finishing line was restraint. The authorities dampened speculation about who was responsible for the atrocity. It could have been a lone lunatic, or a right-wing militia group. Even the media waited until the facts were in. As it turns out the two suspects, one alive and one dead, are Chechen Muslims. But there was no feverish speculation, no finger-pointing, no lynch mobs.

Would that the world media had acted the same way when it covered the death of a 31-year-old dentist in Galway last November. Savita Halappanavar died of septic shock when she was 17 weeks pregnant. As her condition worsened, she asked for an abortion, but her fetus was still alive and her condition seemed manageable, so the doctors refused. Abortion is illegal in Ireland except to save the mother’s life.

The media whipped itself into a frenzy. “Ireland’s law and Catholic culture allowed Savita Halappanavar to die,” was the headline in the New Statesman. There were demonstrations in London, Brussels, Berlin and India. Her death was blamed on the Catholic Church and restrictive abortion laws. There could not have been a newspaper in the world that did not carry the story.

But this week the official inquest handed down its verdict. In a unanimous decision, the jury blamed “medical misadventure”. A series of mishaps led to Savita’s death, but at the time, they nearly all seemed like reasonable decisions. It was not a story of stony-hearted prejudice and religious bias. But I don’t think that we will see many of the newspaper columnists apologising. In fact, few newspapers have even reported the story. 

In any case, legalising abortion might not help women like Savita at all. Despite — or perhaps because of– Ireland’s ban, its maternal death rate (6 per 100,000) is one of the lowest in the world, lower, in fact, than countries where it is freely available, like Australia (7), England (12), New Zealand (15), or the United States (21).


Michael Cook
The media showed restraint in reporting the Boston Marathon massacre. That was the way they should have treated the death of a pregnant Indian woman in Ireland.